Billboard to Make Major Change in Album Chart

Paul Grein
·Writer
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Ariana Grande and Maroon 5 will have extra reasons to give thanks next week. They are among the artists expected to benefit from a major change in methodology for compiling The Billboard 200 album chart. Beginning with the chart that will be made public on Dec. 3, the chart will change from a pure sales-based ranking to one that measures “consumption.” The chart will include on-demand streaming and digital track sales by way of a new algorithm.

The updated Billboard 200 will utilize accepted industry benchmarks for digital and streaming data, equating 10 digital track sales from an album to one equivalent album sale, and 1,500 song streams from an album to one equivalent album sale. All of the major on-demand audio subscription services, including Spotify, Beats Music, Google Play and Xbox Music, will be taken into account.

Billboard predicts that such artists as Grande, Maroon 5 and Hozier will benefit from this change, as their streaming and digital song sales have outperformed their album sales in recent weeks. Maroon V’s V holds at #24 on the current Billboard 200. Hozier’s eponymous debut album drops from #17 to #25. Grande’s sophomore album, My Everything, dips from #36 to #37. Those middling numbers don’t fully reflect those artists’ current popularity.

"Adding streaming information makes the chart a better representation of music consumption activity," says Silvio Pietroluongo, Billboard's Vice President of charts and data development. “While an extremely valuable measurement, album sales would mostly capture the initial impulse only, without indicating the depth of consumption thereafter. Someone could listen to the album just once, or listen to one track or a number of tracks 100 times. We are now able to incorporate those plays as part of an album consumption ranking throughout one's possession of an album, extending beyond the initial purchase or listen.”

Looking again at the three examples that Billboard cites, with Pietroluongo’s point in mind, the Grande and Maroon 5 albums both debuted at #1; Hozier’s album debuted at #2. Maroon 5’s album, which includes two top 10 hits on the Hot 100, spent a respectable five weeks in the top 10. But Grande’s album, which includes three top 10 hits, spent just two weeks in the top 10. (Two weeks ago, it dropped as low as #42.) Hozier’s album, which includes the top 10 hit “Take Me To Church,” spent just one week in the top 10.

David Bakula, Senior Vice President, Industry Insights, Nielsen Entertainment, points to the explosive growth in On-Demand audio play. “With current On-Demand audio play counts exceeding 100 billion so far this year, this method of consumption has redefined the way success is measured in the music industry. Nielsen’s recent Music 360 report reveals that streaming has seen substantial gains in popularity with consumers, with nearly 80 percent of music fans reporting that they have streamed music in the last six months.”

While the Billboard 200 will see major changes, Billboard will continue to publish a pure album sales chart, to be called Top Album Sales. The reformatted Billboard 200 will be equivalent to Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart, which is likewise based on multiple factors (digital sales, radio airplay and streaming activity). Nielsen SoundScan posts a Digital Songs chart which takes only sales into account, but the Hot 100 gets far more attention. It is considered the definitive chart. Given a choice, just about any artist would rather be #1 on the Hot 100 than on Digital Songs. The same will likely be true of The Billboard 200 vs. Top Album Sales.

With this change, we will doubtless see weeks when the #1 album on The Billboard 200 has sold fewer copies than albums that are ranked below it on the chart. But this has been the case with the Hot 100 and Digital Songs charts for years. Just last week, Taylor Swift's “Shake It Off” was #1 on the Hot 100, even though Meghan Trainor's “All About That Bass” sold substantially more digital copies that week (190K vs. 130K for “Shake It Off”). Miley Cyrus's 2009 hit “Party In The U.S.A.” and PSY's2012 viral smash “Gangnam Style” both stalled at #2 on the Hot 100, even though both logged six weeks at #1 on the Digital Songs chart.

The revamped chart will premiere with data from Thanksgiving week, which is one of the most active music release periods of the year.

Existing genre album charts, such as Top Country Albums and Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums, will remain sales-based “for the time being,” according to Billboard.

This is the most substantial change in chart methodology since May 1991, when The Billboard 200 first utilized Nielsen SoundScan point-of-sale data. That made a huge impact on the chart. It elevated the presence of country and rap, which had previously been sorely under-represented. It also greatly “sped up” the chart, making it far more possible for albums to debut at #1. Seven albums debuted at #1 between June and December 1991, compared to six in all of chart history before 1991.

Billboard also made a major change in chart methodology in August 1963, when it combined its separate mono and stereo charts into one listing for the first time.